Clothed in her usual shade of ultramarine, Mary kneels rigidly over a thin baby Jesus placed directly on the ground with a mere scattering of hay to soften the hard dirt floor under him. Exotic, multicolored angels, some hovering weightlessly above, others kneeling on the ground, make their way in toward the center. Shepherds, gesturing recklessly, enter from the right. Joseph, A little further out, echoes Mary’s stiff reverence. And in the left and right wings of this triptych, members of the wealthy Portinari family, the family that paid for the altarpiece to be painted, pray alongside their patron saints.
There are paintings that I admire simply because they so utterly exceed what I imagine to be possible in a work of art. Through sheer virtuosity, the artist makes me care about what he has made. Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece is one of these paintings. The lifelike details in the faces and hands; the way the cloth falls into angular, medieval, not-quite-believable folds; the stiff (and yet very real!) angels with wings like parrots; the massive scale of the overall piece – these are the things that make me stand awestruck when I’m looking at the painting.
Until recently, however, I hadn’t known the troubling backstory to Hugo van der Goes’ life. Paranoid and convinced that he belonged to the damned, this Belgian artist maintained a miserable existence. Though he was not a monk, van der Goes lived and painted in a monastery near Brussels where the brothers tried to calm his fears. Their efforts are depicted in a nineteenth century painting called the Madness of Hugo van der Goes by Emile Wauters. In this painting, a nervous, tortured van der Goes wrings his hands while cherubic choir boys sing to settle his anxious spirit. Working four hundred years after van der Goes, Wauters couldn’t have had first-hand knowledge of what it was like to be a mentally ill artist in a medieval monastery, but the image nevertheless has a level of authenticity that makes it memorable.
The cliché of the anguished artist is a tricky one. On one hand, it is frequently overplayed and romanticized in Hollywood depictions of artists, enough so that the relatively mundane working habits of most artists come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the reality of this profession. On the other hand, there have been many famous artists throughout history who embodied both extraordinary talent and terrible emotional suffering. The cliché is based, at least a little bit, in truth.
Perhaps the artist best known for these extremes is Vincent van Gogh. Incidentally, van Gogh was familiar with the story of Hugo van der Goes. Van Gogh mentioned Emile Wauters’ painting of him in some of his letters to his brother Theo, and, based on what he said in those letters, it seems van Gogh related to the experience of van der Goes. Sadly, the trajectories of the two men’s lives were parallel in at least one sense: they both died early of suicide.
If we don’t immediately see the darkness of van der Goes’ life reflected in his exquisite altarpiece, it may be because we don’t anticipate trouble lurking in a Christmas painting. We see what we want to see, and we want to see something purely joyous, a theatrical celebration of the birth of Christ. There are, however, some more bleak elements in the painting that point toward its creator’s melancholy.
Take a look at the sky and the landscape in the background. There’s a coolness to these areas that can’t be completely explained by the chilly, northern climate in which van der Goes worked. The bare trees and heavy clouds create a somber mood, and the tiny scenes acted out in these areas – the journey of the magi, the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, and the trip Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem – are played out against an austere landscape.
The still life in the foreground is also a reminder of more serious things, since it is a reference to the death of Christ. The bundle of wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist. The white irises are for purity, the orange lilies are for the passion of Christ, and the red carnations are for the bloodied nails of the crucifixion. It may look pretty, but the still life is there as an ominous reminder of what awaited the sweet baby in the painting.
Then there’s the depiction of Satan in the form of a dragon. Peeking out from under the skirt of Saint Margaret, a nasty brown creature rears its head. Saint Margaret is frequently portrayed with a dragon because of the legend that she was swallowed by Satan in that form, but, this is a particularly vicious-looking version of the beast. And so, once again, the painting isn’t just about Jesus' birth. Death and the devil are hiding in the shadows of the pretty clothes and fluttering angels.
To what extent did van der Goes’ temperament and illness shape the way he portrayed this scene? We don’t know whether it was his fear of being among the damned or the theology he learned in the monastery or some other factor that had the biggest impact on his depiction of the nativity. One thing, however is clear: part of what makes this painting great is its emotional complexity. Joy and fear, love and disgust, holiness and humility – all of them are present here, and the turbulence of those extremes was also in the life of Hugo van der Goes. Visitors to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence who look his work today may not guess at all that he experienced, but they almost certainly sense that there is more to this altarpiece than the technical mastery that first drew me to admire it.